This is one of those movies where, while watching it, you might be wondering what the heck exactly is going on. So whether you choose to read this review before you watch the movie or after—either way I think it might help your appreciation of what is being offered in the film. I ~do~ give away plot points here—if they can even be called that.
This movie has a little bit of spookiness, but it is basically a meditation on romantic love, death, grief, and time—looking back over the course of a person’s life and what was important to them.
The movie is very simple in structure but very subtle in execution. A couple moves into a semi-rural bungalow. After a short time, Casey Affleck‘s character is killed in a car accident right outside the house, seemingly binding him to the area around the house after he becomes the ghost under the morgue sheets. (Maybe this is where the idea of ghosts under sheets comes from.)
At times it is very challenging to continue watching A GHOST STORY because this film does something that most movies never do: the camera stays locked on shots for several minutes, which seems like an eternity for the viewer. But what is intended is that you process what the character is likely feeling, or what you would feel if you were in that situation.
In three scenes especially, representing Love, Death, and Grief, the camera hovers almost motionlessly on characters who are doing almost nothing externally.
The first such scene is when the couple is lying in bed and simply looking at each other, caressing and kissing. This scene goes on so long that I actually started talking to the screen: “Yes, we got it!”
Because this shot happens after a startling noise from the piano is heard in the other room, I thought that the extended delay was to heighten the sense of surprise when the sound from the piano happens again. This may be the longest two minutes and fifty-six seconds I have ever seen in a movie. The shot holds so long that you are drawn out of the narrative and really start to wonder when this scene is going to end.
The second scene is in the morgue, where the camera lingers on the gurney with the sheet over the corpse until finally, after so long it seems unbelievable, the ghost pokes his head up. This shot seems far longer than one minute thirty-seven seconds long.
The third lingering scene is of the woman sitting in her kitchen, eating a pie that was given to her as a condolence by a friend. Watching a record-breaking seven minutes and seven seconds of her sitting on the kitchen floor eating the pie is actually a bit easier to bear as she is actually moving, eating the pie!
What she’s really doing is grieving over the loss of her husband, so in thinking of these three foundational scenes, in the first half of the movie they represent three of the most profound things in life: love, death, and grief.
I would recommend that you watch these scenes and not fast forward over them. In our instant gratification society, most people have lost the ability to contemplate even the most important things.
Love, death, and grief are worthy subjects of cinematic contemplation. This movie is an antidote for the instant gratification impulse, as it forces the viewer especially in the theater (if it ever was in the movie theater), without a remote control, to think about what is on the screen rather than simply having story and plot points relentlessly fed to you.
At about the halfway point, the movie changes pace.
The woman packs up a U-Haul and moves away. A new family moves in. The ghost observer, gravitated to the house, decides to drive them out by levitating a glass and throwing dishes on the floor. Classic poltergeist activity.
Later, there’s a party being held in the house where a young man drinking beer is philosophizing on the pseudoscientific destiny of man and how everything in our lives is meaningless because of the ultimate end of the universe.
For a movie so sparse in narrative structure this almost seems unnecessary as people who are thinking about what is being visually presented will be able to figure out the screenwriter’s intention anyway.
The ghost goes forward and observes the future where the house is bulldozed and is replaced by skyscrapers.
The ghost goes back in history and sees a family in the same place as the house, in the covered wagon days. Later he sees them, having been slaughtered by Indians. We see them with arrows in their bodies, and as they decompose over time.
Finally, the ghost sees himself with his woman living in the house.
The woman says that as a child she had been in the habit of placing notes in crevices. This is a childhood behavior that she carries into adulthood just before she leaves the house.
For much of the second half of the movie, the ghost is attempting to remove the paint and dislodge the note in the wall that was placed there by his wife. When he finally removes the note and reads it, his purpose as a ghost has been completed, and poof! he disappears.
The sheet falls to the floor, the same as happened to the ghost-next-door who communicated with him telepathically saying “I thought they were coming back” or something similar.
When the ghost-next-door realizes that her people are not coming back, her reason for existence disappears, and she disappears.
A note on the ghost costume: I liked that the eyes were blacked out absolutely, with a very fine cut to the shape of the eye hole indicating a sad emotion, and also that, as time went on, the ghost sheet got dirty, and also that there was something curved inside, over the actor’s head, that made it look not quite human.
The movie provides a unique visual and storytelling experience in which to remember and contemplate the main themes of the movie.
The main themes in this movie, that things are ultimately meaningless: love, grief, and consciousness, after those things have served their purpose, drove me back to my own deeply held beliefs about time, love, death, and eternity.
I do not believe in the ultimate impermanence of everything.
I do believe in the existence of the unified soul identity across a lifetime.
Also, my Christian faith tells me that there is a conscious eternity in Heaven or Hell.
There is also the resurrection of the body, so the ultimate dissolution not only of the body but also of love and consciousness is not something that I believe is real.
I consider this movie to be important even if not wildly entertaining or fun.
I recommend A GHOST STORY as a meditation on life for our modern era, and as a starting point for contemplation of our deepest beliefs about ultimate things: Time, Love, Death, Meaning, and Eternity.
8.5 stars. Redbox.